In his book “On becoming a leader“, the late Warren Bennis has this to say about leaders: “they are responsible for the effectiveness of organizations”. In a world where expressions such as “slow growth” and “more volatility” are increasingly used to describe the economical landscape, uncertainty is part of the game now. Projections are just that: Projections.
With this new reality, my observations of the corporate world for the last 10 years have led me to the conclusion that companies’ managements tends to stall: No more decision making except to assure short term results. They seem to wait for a clearer and stable picture of the market or a crisis to make a move.
Obviously, such predicaments have consequences: execution tends to disappear, the ability to serve customers is reduced and organizational performance suffers.
People imitate their leaders
Over the course of many conversations about philosophy on leadership with many executives during the past 15 years, I have found that:
- If decisions are being delayed at the top, the same thing will happen in the rest of the organization.
- If turf wars occur at the top, people work in silos.
- If notions such as candor, doing the right thing, and taking risks, are not promoted a disabling culture sets in ultimately bringing the organization to a halt (or worse).
Middle managers find themselves in the toughest spot because they are the ones who have to juggle between the slogans (announced at the corporate level) and the real action occurring in the front lines where you often have to cut corners to get things done. Also they tend to “delegate up” decision making and by doing so, allowing situations to deteriorate.
Projects are vital to sustain an organization
Initiatives and projects help revamping an organization because new products/services can be launched, strategies and processes can be strengthened and people can be driven to higher standards of performance to name those three.
Unfortunately, in these uncertain times, the “one year payback” mentality seems to be the way to go. I remember a few years back while answering to my continuous improvement proposal, my boss asked me: “Why would I invest resources into this project, if it’s only going to generate results 3 years from now”.
And there’s the cancellation phase where projects with huge potential get cancelled in order to allocate resources to existing moneymaking operations with no future. Or budget cuts in all these peripheral departments such as marketing, advertising, and maintenance to name a few. And these cuts hinder directly the organizations’ ability to deliver on their commitments.
In the light of all this, two questions come to mind:
- Why do we get this kind of behaviours?
- What can be done about it?
Courage is the answer
As I face leadership & management challenges every day, I always try to keep a continuous learning posture. I believe leadership is personal and you’ve got to take ownership for its development.
About the question about behaviours raised earlier, “Playing to Win” author A.G. Lafley made an observation that, in my view, provides insight to that first question: “Most leaders do not like to make choices. They’d rather keep their options open”. And he goes on to say “choices force their hands, pin them down, and generate an uncomfortable degree of personal risk”.
And there is the 2nd question: what can be done about it? Managers and professionals need to develop courage. They can make a difference. The idea of waiting for the top to come up with answers is not sustainable. Everyone in the organization has to pitch in and contribute. There is always a certain level of discretion a manager has over his or her department: Therein lie opportunities to try untested things.
Former Mayor of New-York City Rudy Giuliani lists courage as an important leadership trait. He says: “you can’t live in a risk free environment and expect to succeed greatly”.
There are two ideas I think can help develop courage. First, become the best you can be at what you do; own your development. Second, build and maintain and effective network both inside and outside the organization.
With these 2 ideas, I believe you’ll be able to create options and develop power: You’ll able to stand up for what you believe is right.
It takes a lot of personal effort to achieve this you might say. And you would be right. Here a message from Jeff Immelt of GE that I think addresses that concern both for organizations and individuals: “In this world if you’re not willing to invest in your own future even with uncertainty, if you are not willing to see yourself forward with purpose and determination, there’d be no tailwind to help you”. And then he continues: “This is a time period where investors win. People that are willing to lead are going to do better than people that are not.”
1- Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, Basic Books (2009)
2- A.G. Lafley, Roger L. Martin, Playing To Win, Harvard Business Review Press (2013)
3- Quote from Rudy Giuliani is from a speech at the Rudman Center for Justice (University of New
Hamsphire) on April 22, 2014
4- All quotes from Jeff Immelt are from a GE issued speech in Warsaw, Poland on May 7, 2015
About Tsimi Nkoa
Tsimi Nkoa helps individuals in improving their leadership capabilities. He is the founder of the MADIGA Leadership Centre which is committed to assisting people in increasing their professional effectiveness.
As a speaker who provokes audiences to think, he instills the notion of leadership as a primary driver for personal development, innovation and getting the right things done. Tsimi allows audiences to benefit from his current and practical leadership experience of the last 15 years as he also continues to develop people and drive change in the corporate world through organizations such as McKesson, ArcelorMittal and GE.